School smarts more than reading and maths

It’s well established that cognitive abilities such as reasoning, memory and focussed attention help children do well at school, but emerging research suggests it is a two-way street – schooling also helps develop those skills.

This bidirectional effect is reviewed in the journal Child Development Perspectives, and underscores the importance of continuous, quality schooling – particularly for disadvantaged children, says Peng Peng from the University of Texas, US.

There is an enduring, one-way emphasis on training cognition to boost performance in academic abilities such as reading, writing and maths, Peng says. But he was curious to know if there was more to it.

“It’s widely thought that being smart helps you do better in school, but does doing better in school make you smarter?”

Two wide-scoping meta-analyses he led last year suggested it did, finding that long-term correlations between working memory and intelligence and academic achievement in reading and mathematics went both ways.

Exploring this further, Peng and co-author Rogier Kievit from the University of Cambridge, UK, report a body of supporting evidence.

But the two-way interaction between cognition and academic performance was not as strong in children with learning disabilities or from poorer backgrounds, who may lack the appropriate resources or foundational skills.

This suggests those at-risk children are in special need of targeted schooling, and could derive even greater benefits from it, like a snowball effect, says Peng.

They also found that short-term cognitive training doesn’t appear to have a meaningful impact on academic performance, highlighting the importance of sustained training – which can have significant and lasting effects in the long-term.

This is important because academic skills, particularly reading and maths, have wide-ranging benefits not just for educational outcomes, employment and income, but also for life skills, health and psychological wellbeing.

Although much of the research is correlational, Peng and Kievit note a meta-analysis of more than 300 studies that found direct tuition improved both academic performance and measures of cognition and intelligence.

Overall, the findings suggest that schooling has broader significance for children’s development, says Kievit, although more experimental studies are needed to confirm and explore this bidirectional relationship.

“The ultimate hope is to support both cognitive abilities and academic skills by better understanding these processes.”

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